This Day in History

April 14, 1875: Frances Harper on Grassroots Organizing During Reconstruction

Time Periods: 1865
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Racism & Racial Identity
portrait with Frances Harper’s name misspelled

“Mrs. Francis E. W. Harper,” portrait with Frances Harper’s name misspelled, taken from page 748 in The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters. . .  printed by Porter & Coates (Philadelphia, 1872). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. Source: CommonPlace

On April 14, 1875, writer, orator, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper spoke in Philadelphia at the Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

In her address, Harper acknowledged the progress made during Reconstruction, the violent attempts to undo that progress, and the work still needed to fulfill the promise of freedom. In her speech, found at BlackPast, Harper said

What we need today in the onward march of humanity is a public sentiment in favor of common justice and simple mercy. We have a civilization which has produced grand and magnificent results, diffused knowledge, overthrown slavery, made constant conquests over nature, and built up a wonderful material property.

But two things are wanting in American civilization a keener and deeper, broader and tenderer sense of justice; a sense of humanity, which shall crystallize into the life of the nation the sentiment that justice, simple justice, is the right, not simply of the strong and powerful, but of the weakest and feeblest of all God’s children; a deeper and broader humanity, which will teach men to look upon their feeble brethren not as vermin to be crushed out, or beasts of burden to be bridled and bitten, but as the children of the living God; of that God whose may earnestly hope is in perfect wisdom and in perfect love working for the best good of all.

She noted the shortcomings of white people and political parties who claimed allyship, and urged African Americans to continue organizing for justice. At the end of her remarks, Harper encouraged Black women, specifically, to carry the movement forward.

Find related lessons and other resources for the classroom below.

Learn more in the Zinn Education Project national report, “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction,” and find teaching resources on Reconstruction below.